Sunday, 20 November 2011

Speaking the word of God

Preacher: Peter 

I was asked to speak today about speaking the word of God. Which made me think of all the different, and often contradictory, ways in which I have heard that phrase “the word of God” used in the course of my Christian journey.

For example, in my years in a Free Evangelical Church, the sermon was often introduced with the words: “and now our brother will bring us the Word of God”. This usually made me feel uncomfortable – how can the disorganised and let’s be honest rather commonplace thoughts of Mr ____ (much as I’m fond of him) possibly be described as “the Word of God”?! Anyway, surely only the Bible is the Word of God?

Or I can look further back to my years in a Pentecostal church, where it was expected that God would regularly speak through ecstatic Spirit-filled worship in words of prophecy or tongues and interpretation: God himself speaking directly to us with words of encouragement or challenge or even angry criticism. Of course there’s plenty of scope for abuse here – the temptation use the overwhelming authority of speaking the very words of God to browbeat your fellow Christians to come round to your way of thinking is too much for most of us mortals to resist.

This Pentecostal prophetic speaking was in tension with an equally characteristically Pentecostal emphasis on the Bible as the inerrant word of God. The Bible was very much on a pedestal, possibly even subject to idolatrous reverence, and of course inerrant scripture required inerrant interpretation from the preacher in his (and it always was a “his”) sermons. Another opportunity to browbeat your fellow Christians into submissive conformity.

So “speaking the word of God” has been a slippery concept in my experience. But before we give up on the idea all together, let’s go back to the bible itself in search of some solid ground.

Acts 4:23-31        
When they were released, they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them. And when they heard it, they lifted their voices together to God and said, “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit,
         “‘Why did the Gentiles rage,
                  and the peoples plot in vain?
         The kings of the earth set themselves,
                  and the rulers were gathered together,
                  against the Lord and against his Anointed’—
         for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.

Peter and John have just been released, after being arrested and threatened by the religious leaders and told to stop talking “in the name of Jesus”. They go back to the Christian community who immediately pray for them. This prayer is helpful for us today, because of the way it handles this concept of “the word of God”.

They start their prayer by referring to written scripture  as the word of God. They quote Psalm 2 as words spoken by the creator God, through the mouth of David, enabled by the agency of the Holy Spirit. And they confidently apply these words of scripture to their own situation of besieging hostility, expecting God to speak to them through this ancient text.

But they also pray that God will help them to “continue to speak his word with all boldness”. So here we also see the word of God as something that continues to be spoken by Christians, especially in situations of persecution and prophetic confrontation with the authorities. This speaking is an act of witness, speaking “of what we have seen and heard” (v20).

We have a complex dynamic process going on here – David speaks out his poetry, which is written down and incorporated in scripture, which generations later is read and memorized and meditated upon by Jews who encounter Jesus and apply it to him. Under pressure of persecution they quote the written scripture as they pray for boldness to speak out God’s word, and later the whole story is written down and incorporated into scripture all over again. And finally, here am I reading it and speaking it again. The Holy Spirit is indispensably involved at every step, even – I hope – the last one.

Notice in this passage the emphasis on obedient service – both David, past writer of the word, and the apostles, current speakers of the word, are described as “your servants” (vv25,29). Notice also that both written and spoken “word of God” are deployed in service of the same task – to bear witness to Jesus.

So Acts 4 gives us a helpful model of how the written and spoken “word of God” can be deployed together by the church as tools for prophetic witness. As Lloyd Pietersen puts it: “The biblical text .. acts as a means of funding the prophetic imagination of the church.”

But questions remain for me, and the “word of God” has an elusive quality. Do we choose our scripture, or is it chosen for us? The boundaries of the Christian Bible are fuzzy, even today. If you open a Catholic Bible you will find a slightly different contents page than you would in a Protestant Bible. Going beyond that, how do we even choose which sacred book? After all, we are not the only “people of a book” – there are many books in the world which people hold sacred: the Torah, the Koran, the Book of Mormon, the Tao Te Ching, the Vedas, the Lord of the Rings...

What about novels or poems that move us and challenge us? Is God speaking to us through these – are these in some sense “the word of God” as well? Or music and songs? As The Hold Steady sing in “Stay Positive”: “the sing-along songs will be our scriptures”. There’s a terrible danger here of straying into banal wish-fulfillment religion. Whatever I happen to find moving or comforting I call “the word of God” for me.

OK I’m getting lost again. Let’s turn back to the bible for a some guidance.

Hebrews 1:1-4
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.

The unknown writer of this particular piece of scripture tells us that God’s revelation is progressive. God spoke through the prophets of the Hebrew scriptures, revealing more and more of his character, but this self-revelation climaxed in the sending of Jesus his son into the world. Jesus is the ultimate self-revelation of God to us – God can do no more. John 1 gives us the profound idea that Jesus is the Word of God. God is there and he is not silent (to quote Francis Schaeffer) – he loves to speak to us in words that we can understand. He speaks, and what he speaks is Jesus.

This explains why the Bible is our sacred scripture – it is the record of the difficult, troubling, liberating, tragic, argumentative encounter between Israel and the creator God, and the climax of that process in the life, deeds, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The bible is sacred because of Jesus. And likewise, the word of God comes alive for us when we speak it – to each other, but also to the world at large in witness, but only if we bear witness to Jesus. When we speak truly of Jesus, bearing faithful witness to what we have seen and heard (as in Acts 4:20), only then is there the possibility for us of speaking the word of God.

So the word of God cannot be a “dead letter”, a book on a shelf. If it is to bring life it must be handled, used, spoken out. How can we even begin such a task? What does it feel like to “speak the word of God”? Is it even possible? I’m going to finish by going back to a very ancient text from our Bible which I have found helpful when thinking about this.

Genesis 2:18-20
Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” Now out of the ground the LORD God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him.

This primal myth comes down to us with a powerful archetypal image – the first man giving names to all the animals. God makes “out of the ground” animals and birds, and brings each one to Adam “to see what he would call them”.

We see Adam here as the first poet. Good poetry names – it uses words to describe an experience that has perhaps never been described before. But when you read it there is a shock of recognition and you think, “yes, I have felt that too, but never knew how to put it into words”.  So God brings the animals to Adam so that he can name them.

We also see Adam as the first scientist, making an early start on the work of Linnaean classification, bringing orderly description to the chaotic appearances of nature. Naming, classifying and describing open the way into a deep understanding of the structure and workings of God’s world.

Maybe Adam is also the first prophet. God shows something to Adam, and asks him to name it. Think of the prophets of the Hebrew scriptures. God shows them things too – not animals and birds, but injustice, oppression, violence, idolatry, adultery, unfaithfulness – shows them clearly so that they can no longer be ignored, asks the prophet to name these things, to speak out clearly and name them for what they really are. This is not word-by-word dictation, but nevertheless the prophet is truly speaking the word of God.

Which brings us back to Peter and John before the Council: “we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20), and what they have seen, above all, is Jesus. Their task is to name, to speak out, what God has shown them – the wonderful words and deeds of Jesus. Let’s pray that like them, God will enable us to “speak his word with all boldness” (Acts 4:29).

Sunday, 13 November 2011

The Bible can be misused as well as used well

Preacher: Sue

Readings: Matthew 4:1-11 & Matthew 15:1-9

This is another in our sermon series on the bible and Veronica’s headline for today is “the bible can be misused as well as used well”.

We certainly saw that in our first reading.  Jesus is hungry having fasted for 40 days in the wilderness.  And it’s not just hunger Jesus is dealing with.  Before he went into the wilderness, Jesus went to be baptised by John the Baptist who gave a clear message that although John had a powerful public ministry which had people flocking to see him, Jesus was in a completely different league.  And then there was the voice from heaven, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."  So in the 40 days just past Jesus must also have been turning all that over in his mind, pondering and praying about what this special calling looked like in practice.  If he has already been beginning to think in terms of being Messiah, he has a number of models to draw on in contemporary expectations, including expectations that focused round the Messiah as a king who would protect the Temple and fight Israel’s battles.

And perhaps it’s those models that the tempter draws on in the temptations, ways of being Messiah, different Messianic styles, that, variously, hold out the promise of mass appeal, invincibility and power over an immense empire.  Jesus spends time in the wilderness figuring out his calling, finding his own Messianic style.  Maybe as we think about our future, against the backdrop of so many different ways out there of being church, we need to spend time finding our own calling and our own distinctive “style”.

Anyway, the tempter misuses scripture.   Psalm 91, from which the tempter quotes, certainly does offer a picture of God’s great care for Israel. 

Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name.  When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honour them.

It would be possible to read this as a charter for risk-takers – don’t worry about what you do because God will always be there to take care of you.  But I think Jesus’ response shows two things: firstly that this isn’t the message of Psalm 91, which is more about finding even in the midst of trouble that God is still there and still taking care of us, and secondly that Jesus knows the whole of scripture and has grasped its spirit so that he can’t be tricked by one verse taken out of context. 

That reminds me of an image in the book the Monday homegroup is working through at the moment, “Reading the Bible After Christendom” by Lloyd Pietersen.  Lloyd draws on NT Wright’s image of the Bible as a five act play whose last act has been lost, except for the first scene.  The fourth act is Jesus, the first scene of the fifth act is the early church.  And because there is so much material in the first four acts and that last scene, the decision is made to perform the play with five acts.  The actors are asked to improvise the rest of the fifth act based on having immersed themselves in everything that has gone before, so they know the characters, the themes, the central questions.

And Jesus has certainly immersed himself in scripture.  He answers all of the temptations with quotations from Deuteronomy.  And he has such a strong sense of the core of all that reading that when he’s tempted with a verse from scripture he doesn’t have to thrash around with questions of appropriate interpretation, he simply has a gut reaction that it would be wrong to indulge that line of thinking, it would be wrong to put God to the test.  The bible has become part of his bone marrow and he can improvise in a way that entirely fits with all that he has read.

And if we return to our improvising actors, I think we’ll find them a helpful image as we think about the second reading.  As the actors improvise they will need both to be consistent with what has gone before AND to innovate, to be creative.  As Lloyd puts it, the bible in this view is not “ a rule book or a repository of timeless truths” but instead provides “an authoritative foundational script for an unfinished drama that requires sensitive performance in the present to move the drama to its ultimate conclusion”. 

And in some ways our second passage could be read as wrestling with the question of how to improvise from an authoritative script.

In that passage, the Pharisees and scribes challenge Jesus over his disciples’ failure to uphold the tradition of washing their hands before eating.  Now washing your hands before eating sounds like a thoroughly sensible practice and entirely in keeping with biblical attention to purity.  It’s a good improvisation from the authoritative script, you would think.  But Jesus apparently feels free to leave that tradition to one side, to improvise all over again. 

As I was preparing this, I couldn’t help thinking not only about our theme for this sermon series, the bible, but also about our situation as a church, seeking new ways forward that will help us to be visible, open and welcoming and meet people where they are.  No doubt we have some sensible traditions that are in keeping with what we understand the bible to teach – but however good they are it may nevertheless to be time to improvise afresh, to start some new traditions.

But of course it’s not as simple as just innovating away like mad for the sake of it.  Like stock markets and single currencies, improvisations can go wrong as well as right.  The Pharisees too have done their own improvising and innovating over the years.   Their tradition has reinterpreted the command to honour father and mother to allow someone to devote whatever they would have given to their parents to the Temple instead.  Jesus roundly condemns this.  He sees this re-interpretation as just a self-serving attempt to wriggle out of what God commands.  It also seems suspiciously convenient for the Pharisees that their fresh interpretation brings in lots of extra money for the religious establishment.  So it turns out to be quite easy not only to misuse the bible but also to ignore it – just substitute a plausible tradition and you have the perfect excuse to ignore the call of God.

I think we too could easily enough fall – or may already have fallen - into the Pharisees’ trap of interpreting a core commandment into a tradition that just happens to suit us very well by allowing us to ignore scripture.  If some of our old traditions or our new ideas are suspiciously convenient we may need to examine our hearts and the tradition and be open to correction.

I think these passages bring us several challenges.

They challenge us to follow Jesus’ example and immerse ourselves in the bible so we are equipped like Jesus to pick out and apply the spirit of scripture to a whole range of new challenges and temptations.  One of those temptations maybe to follow seductive popular trends which don’t fit with our calling.

But that’s not to say that we should dig our heels in and refuse to change.  We may need to be willing to let old traditions go, however good they are, and creatively improvise new ones.

So it’s not a straightforward question of sticking conservatively with the wisdom of the past, nor a simplistic “out with the old and in the new”.  The old traditions may not continue to be necessary or helpful, but equally the new will not, just by being new, automatically be faithful to the bible.  We’ll have to work together, with extreme alertness to the danger of being too self-serving in our interpretation and improvisation, to give the appropriate value to old and new.  (I think this is what Alan Kreider was talking about in April this year when he quoted Matthew 13:52:  Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.")

So my conclusion seems to be that, as usual, there are no easy answers.  We’ll need a good knowledge not only of scripture but also of the overall character of scripture and the character of God so that we can find our way through all this and avoid misusing the bible.  We’ll need each other as we work together on interpreting the bible and improvising our part of the drama.  And although our practice of seeking to interpret the bible together gives us some safeguards, the community of the Pharisees interpreted together and went astray.  So we’ll need to be keenly alert to the danger of self-serving interpretation, interpreting the bible in ways that are all too convenient for us.  We’ll need to work hard as we seek to discern carefully, keeping all this in mind, as we evaluate traditions new and old, ready to repent of any that are really there for our sake not that of God or others  – and we’ll need the Holy Spirit.  I pray that we may have the determination, the honesty with ourselves and the openness to the Spirit that we will need over the coming months.